The Future of The English
J . B. Priestley
1 To write about the English in standard and cosmopolitan political terms, the usual Left-Centre-Right stuff, is almost always wasting time and trouble. The English are different. The English are even more different than they think they are, though not more different than they feel they are. And what they feel — Englishness again - is more important than what they think. It is instinctive feeling and not rational thought that shapes and colours actual events in England.
2 For example, although the English seem to be so sharply divided, always indulging in plenty of loud political abuse, there are nothing like so many Communists or neo- or potential Fascists in England as there are in most other countries. Again, although the English seem to have more than their share of rallies, protest marches, confrontations with authority, what could begin to look like a murderous encounter in France or America, or might be a bloody street battle in Japan, would in England end at the worst in a few scuffles and arrests. This is because there are fewer fanatical believers among the English, and at the same time, below the noisy arguments, the abuse and the quarrels, there is a reservoir of instinctive fellow-feeling, not yet exhausted though it may not be filling up. Not everybody can draw on that reservoir. No doubt there are in England some snarling shop stewards who demand freedom for the workers when what they really want is to bring the whole system crashing down, together with every guarantee of liberty. No doubt there are wealthy employers who smile at the TV cameras and declare that all they desire is the friendliest relation with their work force, when at heart they would like to take a whip to the whole idle troublesome mob of them. But there are not many of these men, either on the board or the shop floor, and they are certainly not typical English. Some cancer in their character has eaten away their Englishness.
3 The real English, who are ‘different’, who have inherited Englishness
and have not yet thrown away their inheritance, cannot feel at home in the contemporary world, representing the accelerated development of our whole age. It demands bigness, and they are suspicious of bigness. (And there is now not only Industrial bigness; there is also Scientific bigness, needing more and more to discover less and less.) Clearly everything cannot be done by smallish and reasonably human enterprises. No cosy shipyard can undertake to build a 150,000-ton ship, though we may not be in our right
minds if we want such a ship. But it is safe to say that while Englishness may reluctantly accept bigness, its monsters are never heartily welcomed. They look all right in America, itself so large, but seem altogether out of scale in England. Along with the demand for bigness goes a demand for severe efficiency, often quite rational but not reasonable, therefore alien to Englishness. A further necessary demand, to feed the monster with higher and higher figures and larger and larger profits, is for enormous advertising campaigns and brigades of razor-keen salesmen. Finally, from the monster and all its spokesmen comes a message, endlessly repeated. It runs more or less as follows: ‘You ought to be happy. But you are not happy. You can be happy, though, if you buy what we are making for you.’ And a postscript might be added from Iago: ‘Put money in thy purse.’
4 I like to call this ‘Admass’ , and will do so from now on. I will also
announce what the future of the English hangs upon, while at the same time, unlike almost everybody else, keeping well clear of economics. It hangs upon the final result of a battle that has been going on for some years now and that explains why the English seem so odd, eccentric, unsatisfactory, not only abroad but to many persons at home. It is a battle that is being fought in the minds of the English. It is between 'Admass', which has already conquered most of the Western world, and 'Englishness', ailing and impoverished , in no position to receive vast subsidies of dollars, francs, deutschmarks and the rest, for public relations and advertising campaigns. The triumphs of 'Admass' can be plainly seen. It operates in the outer visible world, where it offers more and more things - for more and more money of course - and creates the so-called ‘Good Life’. Against this, at least
superficially, 'Englishness' seems a poor shadowy show - a faint pencil sketch beside a poster in full colour - belonging as it really does to the invisible inner world, merely offering states of mind in place of that rich variety of things. But then while things are important, states of mind are even more important.
5 The battle that will decide the future of the English is going on all round us. At this time of writing, we in England are in the middle of it. I must add that while 'Englishness' can still fight on, 'Admass' could be winning. There are various reasons why this may be happening. To begin with, not all the English hold fast to 'Englishness'. Some important and influential men carefully train themselves out of it - politicians, academics, bureaucrats, ambitious financiers and industrialists, can be found among these men - and
a horde of others, shallow and foolish, wander away from it, shrugging off their inheritance. 'Englishness' is not as strong as it was even thirty years ago. It needs to be nourished by a sense of the dignity and possible destiny of mankind. It must have some moral capital to draw upon, and soon it may be asking for an overdraft . The Zeitgeist seems to be working for 'Admass'. So does most of what we read and what we hear. Even our inflation, which keeps everybody nudging everybody for more money, is often seen not as a warning, not as an enemy of the genuine good life, but as a proof that we need more and not less 'Admass'.
6 Some battles have been won or lost because the commander of a large force, arriving late, decided almost at the last moment to change sides. I feel that a powerful section of English workers, together with their union bosses, is in the same situation as that commander just before he could make up his mind. These men believe that if there is a ‘Good Life’ going, then it’s high time they had their share of it. But some remaining 'Englishness' in them whispers that there may be a catch in it. Where’s this
‘Good Life’ in sweating your guts out, just because the managers are on the productivity-per-man-hour caper? It’s all a racket anyhow. If we don’t work
like the old man used to do, we’re not turning out the honest stuff the old man was expected to turn out. It’s the profit now, not the product. Half the time, we cheat the foremen, the foremen cheat the management, the management cheats the customers. Okay, we want shorter hours, more holidays, bigger pay packets - then the ‘Good Life’ of the adverts for us. Or
are we kidding ourselves?
7 There are, of course, people belonging to all classes who do not want to be fascinated and then enslaved by 'Admass', and who if necessary are ready to make a few sacrifices, largely material, to achieve a satisfying state of mind. They probably believe, as I do, that the 'Admass Good Life’ is a
fraud on all counts. Even the stuff it produces is mostly junk, meant to be replaced as soon as you can afford to keep on buying. Such people can be found among workers in smallish, well-managed and honest enterprises, in which everybody still cares about the product and does not assume the customers are idiots. They can be found, too - though not in large numbers because the breed is dying out - among crusty High Tories who avoid the City and directors’ fees. But they are strongest and, I fancy, on the increase in the professional classes, men and women who may or may not believe in my 'Englishness' but have rejected 'Admass'. They are usually articulate;
they have many acquaintances, inside or outside their professions, ready to listen to them; and not a few of them have a chance to talk on TV and radio. If the battle can be won, it will probably be these men and women who will swing it.
8 But what about the young? Here we might remember that as soon as we consider even the fairly immediate future then our young will not be the young any more; some other young will have arrived. It is one difficulty the American counter-culture enthusiasts have to face - that while they are still praising the rebellious young, half those lads and girls may have already lost their youth and may be as busy conforming to Madison Avenue as they conformed earlier to Hippy California or the road to Katmandu. So far as the English young are concerned, I am dubious about the noisy types, whether they are shouting in the streets or joining the vast herds at pop festivals. Too many of them lack the individuality to stand up to 'Admass', which can provide them with another and even larger herd to join. I have far more faith in the quieter young, who never swaggered around in the youth racket , who may have come under the influence of one or two of those professional men and women, who have probably given some thought to what life may be like at forty or forty-five. They, too, might help to swing the battle.
9 What follows does not apply to old-age pensioners, to people still overworked and underpaid, to all the English who have some integrity, some individual judgment and real values. Far too many of the other English - though 1 don’t say a majority - are sloppy people. They are easy to get along
with, rarely unkind, but they are not dependable; they are inept , shiftless, slovenly , messy . This is not entirely their own fault. Unlike their fathers or grandfathers, they have not been disciplined by grim circumstances. They are no longer facing starvation if they don’t work properly or go on strike, no longer told to clear out if they aren’t properly respectful and start answering
back, no longer find themselves the victims of too many hard facts. And this, in my opinion, is how things should be in a civilized society. But people who have been liberated from the harsh discipline of circumstance should then move on to acquire some measure of self-discipline. Without self- discipline a man cannot play an adequate part in a civilized society: he will be just slopping around, accepting no responsibility, skimping the work he is supposed to be doing, cheating not only ‘the bosses’, the capitalists, but even his neighbours. And unless he is an unusual type, he will not even find much satisfaction in this scrounging messy existence, which does nothing for a man’s self-respect. (I am keeping this on the male side, if only because a woman’s problems are generally more personal, immediate, emotionally
urgent, so that unless she is a hopeless case she has to face and deal with some of them.) And this is the situation that many of the English, decent at heart, find themselves in today. Bewildered, they grope and mess around because they have fallen between two stools, the old harsh discipline having vanished and the essential new self-discipline either not understood or thought to be out of reach.
10 'Englishness' is still with us. But it needs reinforcement, extra nourishment, especially now when our public life seems ready to starve it. To face the future properly they need both a direction and a great lift of the heart. A rather poorer and harder way of life will not defeat them so long as it is not harder and poorer in spirit, so long as it still refuses to reject 'Englishness' - for so many centuries the secret of the islanders’ oddity and irrationality, their many weaknesses, their creative strength.
The Final Chapter from ‘The English’ published by William Heinemann in 1973